How to Influence China

July 25, 1991

What a release valve for demagogy and moral self-indulgence is President Bush's refusal to punish the Chinese people for their government's sins by denying them normal trade relations. Were it not for the president's promised veto, rabid anti-Communists, protectionists and Democratic issue-seekers in Congress would be saddled with a China policy unable to stand up to dispassionate scrutiny.

Of course, this newspaper deplores the butchery on Tiananmen Square that quelled the democracy movement two years ago. Of course, we detest the Beijing regime's persecution of political dissenters, the stifling of free expression and its attempts to block economic reforms.

But in determining whether to continue, cancel or condition the trade policies initiated by President Carter in 1979, when China was a much more totalitarian state than it is today, Americans should ask what is conducive to a prudent course in world affairs: What serves U.S. domestic interests? What serves the interests of those causes abroad with which this country identifies? Are these two approaches compatible? Will they work?

Let us assume for the moment that Congress overrides the president. Domestically, wheat farmers in the upper Midwest would lose their biggest customer, importers of cheap toys and textiles would have to look for other sources and U.S. diplomats would find it tougher to curtail Beijing's international arms trafficking. In China, those hurt the most would be entrepreneurs and industrialists in the coastal provinces -- many of whom continue to defy central authority. The probable result: More repression as Beijing hardliners circle the wagons. That is hardly what Mr. Bush's critics intend.

Though cancellation of normal trading status with China, or overloading it with conditions Beijing must reject, will be self-defeating, that does not mean the president's approach will succeed. But there is a good chance the sheer momentum of China's plunge into international commerce will create the economic liberalization that inevitably leads to political liberalization. Despite the regressions of the past two years, the central authorities are hooked on the hard currency and foreign investment generated by the coastal provinces. They cannot stop this process even if they wanted to, not least because the absorption of Hong Kong in 1997 would become a nightmare.

Indeed, the real joker in the debate over China policy may be that what the United States does has the potential to be a painful annoyance, but not much more. There is a dynamic at work in the world's largest nation that politicians on either side of the Pacific can affect only marginally. This being the case, the best course for the United States is to treat China as it does every other trading partner, including the normal processing of specific trade disputes, while preserving its leverage in an important relationship. President Bush's veto, assuming it is sustained, should be a relief -- most especially to those in Congress who vote against it.

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